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It's time to forgive Mark McGwire

Every so often, I will watch something -- say a presidential debate -- and then I'll watch and read the reactions and realize that I saw the debate all wrong. I thought this candidate won when, apparently, the other one did. I thought this was a good point when, apparently, it did not play well with senior citizens in Minnesota. I thought this was an interesting exchange of ideas when, apparently, it was self-serving and politics as usual.

And I think: Oh well, politics is not my business.

But on Monday night, it happened again, only this time in the sports world. I watched Mark McGwire, in an hour-long interview with Bob Costas on MLB Network, admit using steroids throughout his baseball career. I heard him call it the worst thing he ever did. I watched him tear up on more than one occasion as he talked about having to tell his family and friends that he had let them down. I listened as he talked about calling Pat Maris, Roger Maris' widow, and simply apologizing. This seemed a pretty gracious and classy thing to do.

Costas: "The [Maris sons] consider their father's 61 [homers] the authentic single-season record."

McGwire: "They have every right to."

He admitted trying HGH. He said that he took then-legal androstenedione because "it made my body feel good." He said that he wanted to admit the truth before Congress five years ago but was told by counsel there were too many dangers in doing so. He said that being hurt made him desperate to find a way to get healthy. Costas asked McGwire what he would tell Cardinals hitters if they asked him about performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire said: "It was the stupidest thing I ever did. There's no reason to go down that road. It's an illusion."

I didn't agree with or even follow everything McGwire said, but I never thought that was the point. I never thought apologizing was an Olympic sport with stoned-faced people judging how straight his toes were pointed and if he made too big a splash. McGwire is not a public speaker. He's not a philosopher. He's not a politician. He is not even an especially open person. He is a guy who dedicated his life to hitting baseballs hard. Expecting him to become Hamlet doesn't seem fair.

Let's be brutally honest here: McGwire was not the only person to use steroids in his era, and he's not one of only a few, either. He played baseball in an era when there was no testing and no real stigma attached to using performance-enhancing drugs. He had teammates who used steroids. He faced pitchers who used steroids. He had hits robbed by fielders who used steroids. Amphetamines had been part of baseball going back several decades. Steroids had been a prominent part of football for at least that long. Supplements that stirred smaller but similar effects to steroids -- such as andro -- were legal both in and out of baseball. I don't mean that as an excuse, I mean it as context. Mark McGwire used steroids in a very different emotional time.

And, yet, other than pointing out that he played "in the era" he did not blame anyone except himself. I thought the point was that an obviously private man came forward and admitted that he had done something wrong. He asked for forgiveness so that he could come back and coach baseball -- not for money (Lord knows there isn't much money in coaching) and not for glory (there's even less glory than money) but because he loves being around the game.

We are a forgiving society. I hear that so often that I simply assume it must be true. We as a country WANT to forgive ... that's part of what makes ours a great country. When Mark McGwire finished his sprawling, emotional, vague, occasionally tense and often enlightening hour-long interview, my thought was: "Well, I think forgiveness starts here."

Man oh man did I get that wrong.

Within seconds of the interview ending, I began to hear analysts tearing up McGwire. Then I read some columnists' thoughts -- they mostly ripped into the man, too. And the more I read, the more I heard, the more I realized that most people did not see this thing the way I saw it. Apparently, McGwire was not contrite enough. He was not believable enough. He was not specific enough. He would not admit that steroids made him the great home run hitter he became. He did not tell the whole truth. He did not sound sincere enough. And on. And on. And on.

Wow. I have spent the last few hours trying to replay this in my head. Why didn't I see what so many other people apparently did see? The big thing seems to be McGwire's refusal to accept that steroids made him a better hitter. This apparently trampled many people's sensibilities. But, the thing is, I didn't need him to admit that, and, to be honest, I didn't want for him to admit it.* We all have our opinions about steroids and what they do. That is his opinion. I didn't need him saying something he did not believe... isn't that the very definition of "insincere?"

*There's another thing, something you don't hear people talk about much. In fact, my old friend Buck O'Neil was about the only person I ever heard talk openly about this. Buck would get infuriated because people constantly talked about the "benefits" of using steroids to the exclusion of almost everything else. He'd say something like: "Well, people talk all the time about how they will help you hit the ball farther and pitch the ball faster. Why don't they talk instead about how you might die young? Why don't they talk about how you might not be able to have children? Why are they always telling children: 'Use this and it will make you a great baseball player... but you shouldn't use it?'"

His point was, yes, that we in the media -- especially some of the angriest anti-steroid crusaders -- GLORIFY steroids. We talk about the amazing feats of strength possible with steroids. We talk about how steroids can turn a mere mortal into a legend. We talk about how despite all the rewards -- and those rewards may include fame and riches beyond your wildest dreams -- you shouldn't do it because, you know, it's wrong and cheating and all that. This isn't exactly an overpowering message to the youth of America, is it? McGwire's message was: "Hey, it's a dead end and it doesn't even help you that much." And people skewer him for it?

The definition of "forgive" is to "stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw or mistake." That's all. Forgiveness isn't something that someone else can take from you... it's something you offer up for whatever reason makes sense to you. There are always reasons to not forgive. No apology is perfect. No apology comes early enough. No apology goes deep enough. No apology covers every aspect of things. And there's a reason for this. No apology can erase the wrong in the first place.

When Mark McGwire finished with his day of apologies, I forgave him. It doesn't mean I look at his 70-home run season the way I did in 1998. It doesn't mean that I respect the choices he made. It doesn't even mean that I agree with his self-scouting report. No. I just mean that if there was any anger or resentment toward him for cheating, it is gone now. He admitted and he apologized. Now, he wants to coach baseball. He wants to speak out against steroids. He wants people to remember that he was a damned good hitter who worked hard at the game. I wish him well and hope all those things for him.

As for so many others -- many of them friends of mine -- who do not feel that McGwire met the forgiveness bar and felt like this whole apology thing was a sham, well, as I've said, I have been wrong plenty before. One friend emailed me with this line: "Why SHOULD I forgive him?" It's just my opinion: But I think the answer is in the question.

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